Honoring MLK Day by Remembering the Past

Nick Brooks holding a Henry Repeater rifle.
Nick Brooks shows off a Henry Repeater rifle, often called the rifle that “won the west.” (D Turk/ The Indy)

“We are not the makers of history. We are made by history,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in a sermon from his book “Strength to Love”.

This year for MLK Day, Clark College featured a hands-on display of items from, or inspired by, the history of the Buffalo Soldiers.

The Buffalo Soldiers were a collection of units in the U.S military created after the Civil War. They were the first all-black military unit and were known for their tenacity.

“They were badasses,” Nick Brooks said when describing the many achievements of the Buffalo Soldiers. Brooks is a retired Air Force Sgt. now a part of the Buffalo Soldiers of Seattle, a non-profit organization of volunteers traveling and teaching the history of the Buffalo Soldiers to schools.

Brooks said the nickname ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ came from the Cheyenne tribes during the Indian Wars, though there is debate about what exactly the nickname was referring to. Some think it is because of their brown skin or curly hair that partially resembled the skin or hair of a buffalo, or that their tenacity in battle reminded them of fighting a buffalo, Brooks said.

The Cheyenne admired the mighty buffalo even as they hunted for it, so it’s possible the name of the Buffalo Soldiers was one of respect.

Brooks explained this tenacity partially came from the fact that even after slavery was abolished, life was still brutally hard for black people, and this opportunity in the military was economically their best option. Thus, they didn’t have much to turn back to.

“Imagine being backed into a corner; you’re going to fight,” Brooks said. He further explained that the Buffalo Soldiers were given worse equipment than white troops. They were given Sharp 45/70s, single shot rifles with fairly complicated reloading processes. Meanwhile, white troops were given what were known as ‘Henry repeater rifles’, which fired at a much faster rate.

There were model rifles on a table for people to look at, though Brooks’ favorite thing on display were the McClellan saddles, which were actual, authentic saddles used from the Buffalo Soldiers. 

“These saddles are older than you and me,” he said.

Authentic McClellan saddles on display.
Authentic McClellan saddles that were used by Buffalo Soldiers over a century ago. (D Turk/ The Indy)

The Buffalo Soldiers were around, and most black troops were referred to as Buffalo Soldiers, until the late 1940s when the military was desegregated. 

Nick Brooks is proud to be a part of the Buffalo Soldiers of Seattle, to travel and tell the stories of the Buffalo Soldiers to other colleges, kids and also Native Americans. 

The Buffalo Soldiers of Seattle later explained that talking with the Native Americans is especially important because, while the Buffalo Soldiers are a source of empowerment for black people, they were a part of the Indian wars, which was an incredibly cruel and oppressive war against the Native Americans which caused irreparable damage.

However, unlike many Americans of the time, most Buffalo Soldiers fought in the wars due to economic circumstances, not out of hate for the indigenous people. It’s morally a complicated gray area, and Brooks says the Buffalo Soldiers of Seattle hope to create an open dialogue about it with Native Americans today so they can both understand each other better. 

Brooks said the history of the Buffalo Soldiers is not only Black history, it is also American history that he feels every American can be proud of.

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